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Even on Tough Days, Music Can Boost Exercise Motivation, Study Suggests

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Key Takeaways

  • Despite mental fatigue, music can supply a burst of motivation for physical activity, a new study reports.
  • The results were most likely due to an altered perception of effort, meaning exercise didn’t seem as challenging with uplifting music.
  • This can be added to a range of personalized motivation strategies, experts note, to be used on days when it’s more difficult to get moving.

When you’re feeling mentally fatigued, music may provide a boost of exercise motivation, according to a study in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise.

Researchers recruited two groups of runners: nine who engaged in a variety of sports and exercise recreationally for study 1, and nine who were recreational runners for study 2. The first group completed a 30-minute cognitive test that put them in a mentally fatigued state, then completed a series of interval runs—which involved alternating between high and low-intensity activity. The second group ran 5 kilometers on a treadmill after the cognitive test. Both groups were tested with and without music and were able to choose their own playlist.

Performance was significantly better with music, particularly with the interval running. That is likely because the music altered their perception of effort, according to study co-author Shaun Phillips, PhD, of the Institute for Sport, Physical Education and Health Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

“With mental fatigue, which is common for many of us, exercise may seem like more effort, and that tends to lower motivation,” he says. “Music seems to be a simple way to help people better maintain the quality and impact of exercise.”

Changing Perception of Effort-Level

Music isn’t the only way to change your perception of exerted effort. For example, a study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that people performed better with simple cues like looking at images of happy faces or hearing words that describe action.

Those cues can be tailored to what works best for you, and then strengthened through repetition. Research in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement found that using mantras—short phrases or easily recalled words—promotes focused attention since it fires up the brain region associated with concentration and task completion.

Sticking to one song or a few songs on a playlist can be helpful, however, because it trains the mind to associate that tune with feeling uplifted and ready for exercise, says Phillips, adding that ideally, "you’re looking for a song that already feels upbeat."

For example, in the recent study, a popular choice was “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor—the song heavily featured in the “Rocky” boxing movies. That was likely because the song itself is already associated with a higher degree of effort and commitment, so that mental connection to fitness is easy to make.

More Strategies to Increase Motivation

Maybe a certain song works best for you or it’s a mantra that keeps you going strong—the important thing is to keep playing around with strategies until you find a few that give you a boost, advises Mike Matthews, CPT, author of "The Little Black Book of Workout Motivation."

“What works for your buddy doesn’t necessarily work for you,” he says. “What you’re looking to find is that nudge that gets you started. You can build on that with attributes like consistency and focus. But you need motivation as the first step toward being engaged and energized about what you’re doing.”

Another major tip for getting more motivated Matthews suggests is writing down a simple exercise declaration like, “I will do 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. at the gym.”

These kind of what-where-when statements are highly effective for changing behavior rather than waiting for motivation to appear spontaneously, he says. They prompt the brain’s favorable response to task organization while giving you a measure of accountability.

Novelty can also be useful, he adds. That means trying new activities, or even running on different routes, as a way to “wake up” your feeling of motivation, he adds.

“Sometimes, you may not want to exercise but you know you’ll feel better having done it,” says Matthews. “Knowing what gives you motivation can make a big difference for getting over that initial hurdle.”

What This Means For You

Music can be a powerful tool for increasing your motivation to exercise, particularly if you’re feeling mentally tired. It also helps to play around with different strategies to see what other tactics work to give you that initial nudge toward fitness.

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  1. Lam HKN, Middleton H, Phillips SH. The effect of self-selected music on endurance running capacity and performance in a mentally fatigued state. J Hum Sport Exerc. Published online March 9, 2021. doi:10.14198/jhse.2022.174.16

  2. Blanchfield A, Hardy J, Marcora S. Non-conscious visual cues related to affect and action alter perception of effort and endurance performance. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014;8. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00967

  3. Simon R, Pihlsgård J, Berglind U, Söderfeldt B, Engström M. Mantra meditation suppression of default mode beyond an active task: a pilot study. J Cogn Enhanc. 2017;1:219–227. doi:10.1007/s41465-017-0028-1